Former President Barack Obama “pivoted” towards Africa, his predecessor Donald Trump away from it, and current U.S. leader Joe Biden has had his hands full with the pandemic at home and now the war in Ukraine.
But in an address to lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week, the commander for U.S. forces in Africa pointed to China’s dominance in a region vital to America’s security and economic growth, and warned that Washington ignores Africa at its peril.
“China’s heavy investment in Africa as its ‘second continent,’ and heavy-handed pursuit of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, is fueling Chinese economic growth, outpacing the U.S., and allowing it to exploit opportunities to their benefit,” AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend told the House Committee on Appropriations, echoing comments he made last month to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Townsend’s remarks come amid a burst of Chinese diplomacy with the continent. Foreign Minister Wang Yi — who has visited three countries in Africa this year — met with seven African counterparts in March alone. Last month, President Xi Jinping had what was billed as a “productive” telephone call with Cyril Ramaphosa, the leader of the region’s most developed economy, South Africa.
There’s been speculation that China may simply be trying to shore up support for its position on the Ukraine crisis, with Townsend noting: “Our African partners face choices to strengthen the U.S. and allied-led open, rules-based international order or succumb to the raw power transactional pressure campaigns of global competitors.”
Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, told VOA that China is trying to create a “non-aligned” axis as “Beijing does not want the Ukraine war to become a new Cold War with countries forced to choose between the U.S. and Russia.”
But China’s interest in Africa long predates the war in Ukraine.
Townsend noted the region is home to rare earth metals used for mobile phones, hybrid vehicles, and missile guidance systems, and stressed that “the winners and losers of the 21st century global economy may be determined by whether these resources are available in an open and transparent marketplace or are inaccessible due to predatory practices of competitors.”
West Africa base worries?
The continent also occupies a key geostrategic location. Townsend expressed concern that China — which already has a naval base at the mouth of the Red Sea in Djibouti — is looking at setting up another on the Atlantic coast. That, he said, would “almost certainly require the [Defense] department to consider shifts to U.S. naval force posture and pose increased risk to freedom of navigation and U.S. ability to act.”
Brautigam says she doubts it is in China’s interest to “carve out a threat posture in the Atlantic.”
She told VOA that “with continued terrorism and instability in Nigeria, Cameroon and other parts of the Gulf of Guinea, that area has become the world’s hotspot for piracy.” For China, as the world’s largest trading nation, “that’s reason enough to want an outpost to protect Chinese citizens and economic interests in the Gulf of Guinea.”
An op-ed in China’s state-affiliated Global Times in January appeared to echo this line of reasoning, noting that compared to hundreds of U.S. bases around the world, China only has one and its need for any more would purely be to “ensure local security and interests.”
Another piece in the paper insisted: “China is the most cautious and restrained in terms of overseas military base deployment, as China does not have a desire to project military power globally to support the strategic competition of major powers.”
“Nevertheless, as China's overseas interests continue to expand, there will be an increasing need for the Chinese PLA Navy to defend the national interests in more distant regions, inevitably demanding footholds in some distant waters,” it read.
While China plays down any ambitions to build a West Africa base, a State Department spokesperson told VOA: “It is widely understood that they are working to establish a network of military installations. … Certain potential steps involving PRC-basing activity would raise security concerns for the United States.”
Debt trap accusations
As the two superpowers vie for influence in Africa, Beijing is regularly accused by the West of providing “debt trap” loans to countries on the continent and of working with some of the region’s less savory leaders.
Government mouthpieces like the Global Times and Xinhua reject those allegations, with one op-ed in March countering: “While China offers financial supports and affordable proposals to local economies to build up economic strength to weather challenges, some developed countries have only offered aid with political strings attached.”
And, in a recent interview with a Kenyan newspaper, The East African, China’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa Xue Bing blamed instability in that region on Western foreign intervention. “China will send out engineers and students. We don’t send out weapons. We don’t impose our views on others in the name of democracy or human rights,” he told the newspaper.
Asked if China has already outplayed America on the continent, the State Department spokesperson said: “The United States does not want to limit African partnerships with other countries. The United States wants to make African partnerships with the United States even stronger.”
But Brautigam said that aside from foreign aid, China is a bigger economic player on the continent than the U.S. in every area, adding: “It's not clear that Washington has pivoted to Africa beyond rhetoric.”